Friday, August 24, 2012

Indians in Booklist's 2012 "Top 10 Westerns for Youth" - THE CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS

Earlier today, Erin wrote to me to ask if I'd seen the list of books in the "Top 10 Westerns for Youth" in the August 2012 issue of Booklist.  She had purchased one of the books on the list and is concerned with the depictions of American Indians in it.

Here's my thoughts on Caroline Lawrence's The Case of the Deadly Desperados: Western Mysteries, Book One

The cover has a blurb from the Times that says it is "rip roaring." In other words, hilariously funny. However, what is funny to one may be something else to another...

The protagonist is known as "Pinky" (short for Pinkerton, the surname of his "original pa"). At the time of the story, Pinky is living with his "Christian ma" and pa in a small town in Nevada in 1862. He is twelve years old.

When Pinky was two, his "original pa" left Pinky and his mother to be a railroad detective. Pinky never saw him again. Later, his "Indian ma" (she was "Lakota, which some people call Sioux") took up with another white guy. 

When Pinky was seven, his "Indian ma," the other guy, and Pinky headed west to find Pinky's dad. On the way, their wagon train was attacked by Indians. There was a massacre and Pinky ended up an orphan. Pinky has a medicine bag, given to him by his "Indian ma." It is:
made of buffalo hide & decorated with red & blue beads in a little arrow shape. It was as big as my right hand with the fingers spread out. My Indian ma had given it to me before we set out on the wagon train west.  

I had been wearing it around my neck during the massacre but I had not seen it since my foster parents put it in the hiding place under the floorboard.
That was in 1857. 

When the novel opens, it is 1862. Pinky comes home from school on September 26, and finds his "foster parents lying on the floor in a pool of blood." They'd been scalped and there's a tomahawk in his pa's chest. 

He runs to his mother, who is still alive. She tells him that white men dressed like Indians had attacked them, and that those men were looking for Pinky's medicine bag. Before she dies, she tells Pinky that the bag holds his destiny. He is to get it and leave before the men come back. 

Pinky gets the bag, but before he can leave, Pinky hears the killers returning and climbs into the rafters to hide. He uses a "Bush Trick" his "Indian ma" told him about. "If you hide behind a small bush and imagine that you are that bush, they say you become invisible."  

The men leave. Pinky, wearing a buckskin outfit that his Ma made for his birthday, crawls through the dirt to wait for the stage coach. As he lies in the dirt, he opens the medicine bag. Inside is his "Indian ma's" flint knife, a folded up piece of paper, and a brass button "that belonged to my original pa." That paper will turn out to be a letter from his "original pa," and its contents are the reason he is being chased.
That "original pa" was named Robert Pinkerton. When Pinky's "Christian ma" learned that Pinky's father was a Pinkerton, she wrote to Allan Pinkerton in Chicago to "ask him if his dead brother had ever fathered a child by a Lakota squaw around the year 1850."  

Shall I stop?

Or do you want to know about the part where some schoolyard bullies stop punching Pinky when they see "[t]he rest of his filthy tribe" coming to save him. Or, maybe you want to know about Pinky staring in a mirror and seeing "a grubby Blanket Indian with an expressionless face staring back at me."

This humor doesn't work for me. 

Kirkus gave it a starred review for its pacing, deadpan humor and appealing protagonist. The reviewer for The New York Times Book Review thinks that Pinky has Asperger's syndrome, or, high functioning autism and that "Any child who's felt like a 'Misfit' or 'Freak of Nature' as P.K. does will identify with his despair and cheer him" (review posted at Amazon in Editorial Reviews). Maybe so, but what will Native children make of Native identity as the vehicle that carries the humor?

Did you note the subtitle says "Book One"? With those starred reviews, there will likely be additional books about Pinky (who is, by the way, is a girl, not a boy). 

And the contents of that letter? It is a deed to land with silver mines in the mountains of Nevada. 

The idea of a half-Lakota Pinky encroaching on lands belong to other Indians doesn't work for me. The Case of the Deadly Desperados? Not recommended. 

Update: Saturday, August 25

Last night I went over to Goodreads to post my review and see what reviews there were like. I found that Erin had posted her review there. Do read what she said


jpm said...

Some "interesting" information from one of the Amazon reviews: Caroline Lawrence, the author, "grew up when westerns were the kings of television." I grew up then, too, and it's clear in retrospect that perhaps that's nothing to brag about. Ms. Lawrence "has a Western Mysteries website", on which she writes about her research trips and blogs about her visits to schools in the UK where she shares the Wild West to British kids who really aren't that familiar with it." Oh NO! As we've seen with British and European books about Native people and the "OLd West", the general "understandings" there about the North American Old West has been learned from Karl May and -- guess what?-- the same old movies and maybe the TV shows that I saw (or was not allowed to see) in the 1950s. The enthusiastic Amazon review continues, "The Case of the Deadly Desperadoes is a realistic, loving homage to the Old West that only a person growing up in the west and watching westerns on TV could write." I'd add a phrase: "who has remained ignorant about some of the deeper history of the region and clueless about how it might feel to be a Native person reading her words." The Old West of the Hollywood western didn't exist. Why pay homage to a set of illusions? And why put such a book on a "best" list??

Truth Unleashed said...

I've never seen "rip-roaring" used to mean "hilariously funny." I've always known it to mean "fast-paced, action-packed, exciting." I doubt the passages you quote here are intended to be humorous. I haven't read the book, so I can't comment on it as a whole, but I do think it's fair to point out that these serious issues aren't necessarily being played for laughs.